By Bilal Y. Saab and Nicholas Blanford
As Hezbollah prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of a month-long war with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the militant, Iran-backed Shiite organization is facing some of the toughest challenges in its three decades of existence.
Hezbollah is mired in a protracted war in neighboring Syria, where its fighters are battling to defend the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The conflict is estimated to have taken the lives of more Hezbollah fighters in four years than in the entire period of resisting Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon between 1982 and 2000. Hezbollah is struggling to maintain morale among its Shiite support base as war fatigue grows. Formerly hailed as the champion of anti-Israel resistance across the Islamic world, today Hezbollah is vilified by Sunni Muslims for its support of the Assad regime. Once respected for its financial probity, Hezbollah in recent years has seen the cancer of corruption take root within its ranks as the organization has grown in size and power. Lately, it has faced a financial crunch, the result of financing its Syria intervention; a reduction in funds from Iran due to the downturn in oil prices; and measures taken by the United States to locate and sever its global revenue streams, and threaten sanctions against commercial entities dealing with the organization.
On the other hand, in the past decade, Hezbollah has swelled enormously in terms of manpower and weaponry. It has the capability in the next war to bring normal life to a halt in Israel. It possesses guided rockets that can strike specific targets as far south of Lebanon as Tel Aviv; its anti-ship missiles have sufficient range to effectively blockade Israel’s coastline; and its suspected air-defense assets will complicate Israel’s traditionally unhampered domination of the air space. Hezbollah’s cadres have amassed new war-fighting skills in Syria and, most importantly, have gained critical combat experience in a brutal theater. IDF officials acknowledge that Hezbollah constitutes the Jewish state’s most formidable threat, illustrating that the military power of this nonstate actor is comparable to that of a state.
Even as Israel and Hezbollah mark the 10-year anniversary of the 2006 war, both sides have been girding for a fresh encounter. The next conflict promises to be of a significantly larger scale than the last one, with extensive damage and casualties anticipated in both Lebanon and Israel. Neither side currently seeks another round, and the “balance of terror” between these two enemies has ensured that the Lebanon-Israel border has enjoyed its longest period of calm since the mid-1960s. But the balance is inherently unstable and prone to miscalculation by either side, making another war all but inevitable, with only the timing and trigger factor remaining unknown.
The Syria Imbroglio
The Syrian civil war has become the deadliest and most intractable conflict of the 21st century so far. After more than five years of war, conservative estimates place the number of dead in excess of a quarter of a million. More than 6 million people have been internally displaced and another 4.6 million have fled the country. In all, around half Syria’s population has been forced to flee their homes. The war has seen Russia engage in its first major military intervention beyond its immediate borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has also given rise to the so-called Islamic State, which has become renowned and feared for its nihilistic barbarity and, since 2015, its reach into the West.
In the middle of all this is Hezbollah. As the Assad regime began to run into serious trouble in mid-2012, Hezbollah started sending groups of fighters across the border to help out. That intervention, which substantially increased in early 2013, has been key to Assad’s continued survival.
Hezbollah’s cadres have fought on multiple battlefronts from Aleppo in the north to Deraa in the south and have provided a necessary stiff backbone to the exhausted Syrian army and inexperienced loyalist militias. It has also played a crucial role as a force multiplier in training loyalist militias, including the National Defense Force and various small “Syrian Hezbollah” groups that have begun to emerge.
The conflict in Syria is Hezbollah’s greatest military undertaking, dwarfing any of its wars against Israel. Estimates of its strength in Syria vary between 5,000 and 10,000 at any one time, depending on operational needs.
It is unclear how many fighters the party has lost since it began intervening in Syria in mid-2012, but it is reasonable to assert that at least 2,000 have died by now, with perhaps three times that number wounded, some with life-changing injuries. To place that figure into context, in around four years, Hezbollah has lost nearly double the 1,284 officially recognized “martyrs” who died resisting Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon between 1982 and 2000.
Hezbollah justifies its involvement in Syria on two main pillars: One, the Assad regime is the backbone of the Jabhat al-Muqawama, or the Resistance Front, grouping Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and other anti-Israel and anti-Western entities and states spanning the Middle East. Syria is the geostrategic lynchpin connecting Hezbollah to Iran. It is the primary conduit for the transfer of weaponry to Hezbollah’s arsenals in Lebanon and provides the organization with strategic depth. Assad’s fall and replacement by a regime better reflecting the Sunni majority demographic in Syria would leave Hezbollah isolated and potentially surrounded by enemies.
The other factor justifying Hezbollah’s intervention is the rise of extremist jihadi groups like the al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. Both pose a clear threat to Hezbollah and its Shiite support base. This has been amply demonstrated since early 2013, with more than a dozen suicide attacks against Shiite-populated Hezbollah-supporting areas in Lebanon that have left more than 100 people dead and many hundreds more wounded.
New Lessons Learned
Since Hezbollah emerged in the wake of Israel’s 1982 invasion, its cadres have trained to fight a very specific enemy, Israel, in a very specific environment: the hills and valleys of south Lebanon. Hezbollah developed tactics and acquired suitable weaponry that has helped level the playing field to a certain extent against the most powerful military force in the Middle East.
It built bunker and tunnel networks to stash weapons, launch ambushes and evade Israeli aerial power; it acquired advanced Russian anti-armor missiles for use against Israel’s Merkava tanks, anti-ship missiles to threaten Israeli naval assets, and, today, mid-range guided ballistic missiles that can strike targets as far south as Tel Aviv.
However, the situation facing Hezbollah fighters when they first deployed into Syria was very different. Hezbollah’s enemy in Syria is not a powerful conventional army but an irregular force adopting asymmetric tactics and armed with much of the same infantry weaponry as Hezbollah. Furthermore, Hezbollah was required to fight in a different geographical environment than it was used to. Instead of the familiar rural environment of steep, stony wooded hills and valleys in south Lebanon, Hezbollah is operating in flat agricultural terrain, semi-desert, barren mountains and dense urban environments.
Hezbollah traditionally fights in small units of between five and 10 combatants. In Syria, Hezbollah is fighting in larger formations and alongside other units with which it has not trained, such as the Syrian army, Iraqi Shiite paramilitary groups and the loyalist National Defense Force militia.
Hezbollah fighters have even learned how to call in airstrikes and drive tanks and “Shilkas,” self-propelled anti-aircraft guns that are used in a ground role. Hezbollah also has had to overcome the logistical factors of rotating cadres in and out of Syria and ensuring that their needs are met not just on the battlefield but also at home in terms of treating casualties and supporting families of dead fighters.
Hezbollah’s greatest gain in Syria is combat experience. Before the Syrian war, Hezbollah had not been in constant combat since before May 2000, when Israel withdrew from its occupation zone in south Lebanon. In the past decade, Hezbollah’s ranks have swelled with young and untested combatants. The Syrian war has provided a new generation of Hezbollah fighters the opportunity to gain valuable combat experience, which should give them an edge the next time they confront Israeli forces in battle.
Nevertheless, those advantages should not be overstated. Many of the skills learned by Hezbollah in Syria will be irrelevant in the context of a future war with Israel. Hezbollah will not operate tanks against the Israeli army, nor will it call in airstrikes or fight in large formations. Instead, it will revert to its original military doctrine, but with the added advantage that its fighters will have experienced the rigors of combat.
Despite the gains from Syria, Hezbollah also has experienced losses. They include the loss of support of Sunnis across the Arab world and beyond. In 2006, Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s secretary-general, was topping popularity polls in the Arab world for his party’s performance in the July-August war against Israel. Now, he is reviled by Sunnis across the region, and his organization has been dubbed Hizbu Shaitan—the Party of the Devil. Hezbollah’s transition from a champion of anti-Israel resistance to scourge of the Sunnis has spurred a wave of suicide bomb attacks against Shiite areas of Lebanon, particularly between July 2013 and June 2014, that, according to figures compiled by the authors, left around 150 people dead and nearly 1,000 wounded. The gradual crumbling of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate in Syria has raised concerns in Lebanon that Lebanese members of the group will return home to plan a fresh wave of attacks against Shiite areas and popular tourist locations.
Another challenge for Hezbollah as a result of the Syria intervention is the growing war-weariness among its support base. Even though they continue to stand by Hezbollah, many supporters are fed up with seeing their brothers, sons, husbands and fathers returning in body bags from Syria. The fatigue is also affecting some of the fighters themselves. In the past year, there has been an increase in anecdotal reports of fighters refusing to serve in Syria, or leaving the organization altogether. Some have taken advantage of the flow of refugees from the Middle East to seek out new futures in Europe.
The extent of war fatigue within the party’s ranks is likely still minimal at this stage, although the phenomenon is unprecedented for an organization that has a tradition of discipline, obedience and focus. The fact that such weariness has emerged at all is testament to the intensity of the Syria war, although it is also possibly due to a lowering of the quality threshold for some new recruits, particularly those that are being dispatched quickly to Syria. Hezbollah’s recruitment process is usually quite arduous and thorough, beginning with background checks and then extensive religious lessons and military training over a period of months, and continues even after a recruit has been fully absorbed into the organization. But many new recruits for Syria are given month-long basic training in the Bekaa Valley before being sent across the border. There follows a brutal Darwinian process in which the incapable or unlucky recruits are killed off quite quickly.
The war in Syria is also proving costly to Hezbollah’s financial reserves. According to a mid-ranking Hezbollah commander who was interviewed by the authors, the party is spending around $20 million a month on its military intervention in Syria. That figure, if correct, is a substantial commitment, and explains in part reports over the past two years that Hezbollah is having financial difficulties. Part of the problem is also attributed to falling oil prices and Iran tightening the purse strings. The nuclear agreement between Iran and international powers in July 2015, and the gradual lifting of sanctions against the Islamic Republic, does not yet appear to have precipitated an increase in funds to Hezbollah.
With every bomb that explodes in Hezbollah’s strongholds, the party’s relationship with its Shiite constituency takes a hit. There is increasing anxiety and tension among the party’s supporters due to the costly Syrian adventure and its repercussions inside Lebanon. However, the claim that serious cracks have emerged in Hezbollah’s bond with Lebanese Shiites, which the party has nurtured effectively with the help of Iran since its inception, represents wishful thinking.
To ensure Lebanese Shiites a prime seat at the political table, provide their kids with an education, employ their youths, and protect them from various security threats, there simply is no alternative to Hezbollah. To abandon the party in these turbulent and dangerous times would be akin to suicide for the majority of Lebanon’s Shiites.
None of this suggests, however, that Hezbollah’s domestic standing in Lebanon has remained unscathed. The party’s control of the political process in Beirut is real, but its relationships with other communities are fraying, leading to a degree of isolation unseen before.
What was once a stable and mutually beneficial relationship with Lebanon’s Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), for example, is now an uncertain pact due to the ongoing political crisis surrounding the failure to elect a new Lebanese president; the country has been without a head of state since May 2014, when former President Michel Sleiman’s tenure ended. Hezbollah had been promising FPM chief Michel Aoun that it would back his bid for the Lebanese presidency since they signed a memorandum of understanding in February 2006. However, Aoun’s unexpected political alliance this year with the Lebanese Forces—a political party that, during the civil war, was a Christian militia and which Hezbollah deems too right-wing and close to Washington—has given Hezbollah pause.
Hezbollah’s relations with the Lebanese Sunni community, which is led by former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, are extremely tense due to a visceral disagreement over the Shiite party’s role in Syria and deep Sunni suspicion over Hezbollah’s likely involvement in a string of assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians and intellectuals including, most prominently, Rafiq Hariri, the late Lebanese prime minister and father of Saad.
In a recent speech following the 40-day commemoration of the killing in Syria of Mustafa Badreddine, a top Hezbollah military commander, Nasrallah emphasized, rather uncharacteristically, the party’s financial and military reliance on Iran.
Although the party has never tried to hide and has even expressed pride in the support it receives from Iran, it has always preferred to de-emphasize its ties to Tehran for fear of unnecessarily alienating other key domestic communal groups and portraying the image of an Iranian client or proxy. That Nasrallah did not mince words and decided to focus on the issue quite deliberately in his speech was interpreted by many in Lebanon as an attempt to not only alleviate concerns among the party’s support base about an uncertain future but also send a message of defiance to its adversaries at home and abroad.
However, Nasrallah’s tone, whether willingly or not, had an increasingly religious and sectarian ring to it. It was in keeping with a trend of sectarian rhetoric in Nasrallah’s speeches in recent years, which increasingly have addressed the plight of Shiites in Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain, a trend that has not gone unnoticed in Lebanon and the region.
Since it was born, Hezbollah has sought to present itself as a nonsectarian entity, intent on bridging Islamic divides and holding the banner of a united ummah, or Islamic nation. Yet the perception of the group as a Sunni-killing Shiite militia is rampant in the region today. Perhaps Hezbollah has realized that the gulf within the Islamic world is too deep and the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia is ever more intense. So its leadership might have judged that it is wiser to accept, rather than fight, these realities, while more clearly expressing solidarity with its critical Iranian ally.
The Dangers of Hezbollah’s Approach
Three decades have passed since Hezbollah’s birth. The party has accomplished a set of impressive and unique accomplishments that put it firmly on the regional and international map. By forcing Israel to withdraw from occupied Arab lands, it succeeded where all other Arab militaries failed. It managed to transform the fortunes of a historically marginalized Lebanese Shiite community in ways that no other Shiite actor in Lebanon’s history ever could. Its influence in the Middle East currently tops that of many Arab governments. The Islamic State’s rise and recent international terrorist attacks notwithstanding, Hezbollah has been for some time, by the admission of U.S. and Western intelligence agencies, the most capable substate militant actor operating in the world today.
However, Hezbollah has failed miserably in the one department that perhaps matters more than anything else: its political project at home. Perhaps it never had one, with politics always being subservient to the military and religious struggle.
Hezbollah has failed miserably in the one department that perhaps matters more than anything else: its political project at home”
Given Lebanon’s divided social makeup, it is not imperative for sects to co-mingle in order to survive. The main priority of Lebanese communal groups is first and foremost to take care of their own constituencies. But when the principles of coexistence and power-sharing are severely violated by any sect, the system loses its balance. This is precisely what happened when the Lebanese Christian Maronites attempted to dominate the system, until it broke down in 1975 and led to a civil war that ended 15 years later. Whether it knows it or not is unclear, but Hezbollah is increasingly at risk of committing that same fatal mistake by imposing its will on others, refusing to integrate its army into the Lebanese Armed Forces, and putting its own support base at risk of war with those who don’t agree with it.
Whether it knows it or not is unclear, but Hezbollah is increasingly at risk of committing that same fatal mistake ( of 1975 committed by the Christian Maronites) by imposing its will on others, refusing to integrate its army into the Lebanese Armed Forces, and putting its own support base at risk of war with those who don’t agree with it.”
Hezbollah’s determination to pursue its “resistance priority,” which emphasizes the religious and military struggle, is undermining much of what it has achieved. The group has always sought to bring together Shiites and Sunnis in the greater struggle against Israel and Western ambitions in the Middle East. But its image has been shattered. Today, Hezbollah is perceived by many in the region as a Sunni killer and Shiite warrior, increasingly and unashamedly operating in Iran’s strategic orbit. That is not a good recipe for long-term survival in a region where Sunnis are a majority.
Hezbollah is perceived by many in the region as a Sunni killer and Shiite warrior, increasingly and unashamedly operating in Iran’s strategic orbit. That is not a good recipe for long-term survival in a region where Sunnis are a majority.”
Bilal Y. Saab is senior fellow and director of the Middle East Peace and Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center.